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Major Struchkov's stories, which he ended with the re-
mark "they are all alike", and that you can get on to any
of them "in two ticks", Meresyev was unable to restrain
himself and asked, clenching his teeth so tight that his
cheek-bones paled:
"Any of them?"
"Yes, any of them," replied the major coolly.
At this moment Klavdia Mikhailovna entered the ward
and was surprised to see the tense expression on the
faces of the patients.
"What's the matter?" she asked, adjusting a strand of
hair under her kerchief with an unconscious gesture,
"We're discussing life, nurse. We're like a lot of old
codgers, now. Nothing to do but talk," the major an-
swered with a beaming smile.
"What about her?" demanded Meresyev in an angry
voice when the nurse left.
"Do you think she's made of different stuff?"
"Leave Klavdia Mikhailovna alone," Gvozdev said
sternly. "We had an old chap here who called her a
Soviet angel."
"Who wants to bet?"
"Bet?" cried Meresyev, his dark eyes flashing fiercely.
"What are you staking?"
"Let's say a pistol bullet, as officers used to do: if you
win, Pll be your target, and if I win you'll be my target,"
Struchkov said, laughing and trying to turn the whole
thing into a joke.
"Bet? On that? You seem to forget that you're a
Soviet officer. If you're right you may spit in my face."
Alexei narrowed his eyes. "But watch out that I don't
spit in yours."
"You don't have to bet if you don't want to. I'll prove
it to you fellows just for the hell of it that we have no
cause to quarrel over her/'
From that day onward, Struchkov zealously paid his
attentions to Klavdia Mikhailovna: he amused her with
comic stories, in the telling of which he was a past mas-
ter; in violation of the unwritten rule that an airman
should be reserved in telling a stranger about his war
adventures, he related to her many of his truly great and
interesting experiences; with heavy sighs he even hinted